Of all the Great civil rights leaders, Ida B. Wells is one of the least known – yet one of the most important. An activist, educator, writer, journalist, suffragette, and pioneering voice against the horror of lynching, Ida B. Wells used fierce determination and the power of the pen to educate the world about the unequal treatment of blacks in the United States. She helped found the NAACP, fought for women’s voting rights and waged a campaign against lynching that exposed the use of mob violence to terrorize African-Americans
Ida B. Wells was born into slavery on July 16, 1862, six months before the Proclamation Emancipation in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She grew up during Reconstruction, a time of great hope and freedom. Her parents died of Yellow Fever in 1878 and Ida became the head of her household of five younger children at the age of 16. She left school, earned her teachers certificate and began work as a teacher. The following year she moved to Memphis with two of her sisters and continued teaching in Tennessee.
In 1884 Ida was forcefully removed from the ladies car of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad when she refused to sit in the segregated car for blacks. She sued the railroad and won. The Jim Crow laws provided for separate by equal treatment, but since there was not a separate “colored” ladies car the court ruled that she should not have been removed. The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the reward in 1887.
Ida began writing for church bulletins and newsletters and then for the black weekly press. In 1889 she became part owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, demanding full equality with her male partners.
On March 9th, 1892, three friends of Wells — Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and William Stewart — were lynched outside of Memphis. The three men owned and operated a store called the People’s Grocery, a business that competed successfully with a white-owned store nearby. The rivalry between the two businesses escalated into violence between whites and blacks. Police charged Moss, McDowell, and Stewart with inciting a riot and arrested them. A mob then stole the men from the jail and murdered them on the outskirts of the city. In protest, Wells wrote a strongly-worded and uncompromising editorial in her newspaper, attacking the lynch mob for its barbarism and exposing the South’s justification for lynching — a mob reaction to the crime of rape- as a “thread-bare lie.” Angered by the editorial, a violent mob attacked and destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and Wells’ life was threatened. She was warned never to return to Memphis. Wells began to investigate the lynching phenomenon from New York, where she wrote for the African-American newspaper, the New York Age. Her findings were compiled and published in the fall in a story titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.
Protesting the racism that purposefully excluded African-Americans representation in the Chicago World’s Fair, Wells published The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the World’s Colombian Exposition in 1893. Frederick Douglass, Irvine Garland Penn and Wells’ future husband, Ferdinand Barnett, contribute to the publication. Wells’ anti-lynching pamphlet, “A Red Record,” appeared in 1893 when she also married Ferdinand Barnett. Ida is one of the first women to hyphenate her name becoming Ida B. Wells-Barnett. In 1986 she participated in the founding of the National Association of Colored Women. Wells-Barnett told the story of Robert Charles, an African-American who challenged police harassment in New Orleans in May 1900 in Mob Rule In New Orleans.
Following a race riot in Springfield, Illinois, Wells-Barnett participated in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Suspicious of the largely white leadership, and skeptical that the organization could effectively address the most difficult racial problems, Wells-Barnett eventually left the organization.
In 1910 Wells-Barnett founded the Negro Fellowship League, an organization which provided shelter, employment, and other services for the migrants who came to Chicago from the South in search of factory work.
Wells- Barnett turned her reformist energies towards winning the vote for all African-Americans in 1913; particularly women. She formed the first suffrage club for black women in the state of Illinois: the Alpha Suffrage Club. She participated in the in National American Women’s Suffrage Association’s (a white women’s suffrage group) parade in Washington on March 3, 1913; a protest timed to coincide with the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson as the nation’s 28th President. Characteristically, Wells-Barnett refused to march at the back of the parade and demanded to walk alongside the white delegates from her state. “I shall not march at all,” she declared, “unless I can march under the Illinois banner.” Her protests failed to force a change. Along the parade route, Wells-Barnett stepped out of the crowd and into line with the main delegation, protected by sympathetic whites like Alice Paul and still opposed by others. Her efforts mark the integration of the movement. She returned to Washington D.C. in 1918 to show her support for the Constitutional amendment that gave women the vote.
Wells-Barnett spoke before Marcus Garvey’s organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1916, congratulating the nationalist leader for unifying African-Americans and instilling them with pride in their people. In 1918 she was selected by the UNIA along with labor leader and fellow editor William Monroe Trotter to attend the Versailles Peace Conference in Paris: a meeting of world leaders at the end of World War I. The U.S. government denied the two permission to attend the conference, claiming that their association with groups like Garvey’s made them dangerous radicals. Wells-Barnett spent the next decade challenging racism and addressing the great issues of her day. She died in Chicago on March 25, 1931. Her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, was published by her daughter, Alfreda Duster in 1970.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was one of the top three leaders of the African American struggle at the turn of the twentieth century but is almost unknown today. Why is that?
Ida was a strong-willed individual who was unwilling to compromise her principles and this put her in conflict with other leaders. She criticized the leadership of the Suffrage Movement including her friend, Susan B. Anthony, for not confronting the Jim Crow laws and Lynching. She criticized the black male leadership for the same thing. W.E.B. Dubois asked her to “tone down” her criticisms, but Ida refused. She was a self-educated working class woman in a period where leadership was college educated, upper class, and male dominated. Ida traveled alone, when women didn’t do that. Ida wrote about politics and social ills when “women writers” wrote about “house issues.” She was one of the first investigative reporters and sociologists and studied lynching, exposing the claim that black men were lynched for raping white women as false. Most lynching was to “keep the nigger in his place” and punish black success as her friends lynching in 1892 showed, and when inter-racial relationships were involved they were usually consensual. This meant that Ida was talking about sex, when nobody talked about sex, especially not women. She refused to be intimidated and starting carry a gun after her friends were lynched, saying, “One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”
She insisted that law and order pertain to everyone and changed the United States by exposing the evil of lynching through the strength of her writing. It is Ida B. Wells’ intelligence, integrity, bravery and commitment that made her “The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” and make her a role model for today.